Jeanne Head was a delivery room nurse at a New York City Catholic hospital helping to bring new life into the world on her night shift and lobbying against abortion by day. That was 40 years ago.
Since fighting the 1970 New York state abortion law, she has dedicated her life to the cause of life. She co-founded the Manhattan Right to Life Committee and Birthline Hotline in 1972 and the Metropolitan Right to Life Foundation in 1987 and has served in a number of positions for New York State Right to Life Committee.
She is presently on the board of National Right to Life Committee and is NRLC’s vice president for international affairs and United Nations representative.
On Jan. 22, she will receive one of six Gerard Health Foundation’s Life Prizes, which comes with a $100,000 stipend. The others are Douglas Johnson, legislative director with National Right to Life; Marie Smith, director of the Parliamentary Network for Criticial Issues; Alveda King, a pastoral associate with Priests for Life; the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, and Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life of America.
Where did you grow up, and what brought you to New York?
I was born in Selby, S.D., and grew up in different places in the Midwest, as my family moved. I earned a nursing degree and worked in the delivery room in Omaha before coming to New York in 1965 to pursue an acting career. I didn’t get very far with that when I got sidetracked with the pro-life movement, when New York state was trying to pass the most liberal abortion law in the nation. I wasn’t connected to anyone in the pro-life movement, so I tried to stop it on my own and to get people involved. I sent telegrams to my representatives. I really didn’t imagine that it would pass, so it was shocking and devastating when it passed by only one vote when an assemblyman demonstrated “the power of one” by changing his vote at the last minute. I will always wonder if I could have made a difference had I gone to Albany — if I could have been “the power of one” in the other direction.
Did working as an obstetrics nurse inspire your activism?
I was a delivery room nurse for 44 years, retiring from St. Vincent’s Medical Center in 1997. I saw perfectly formed babies smaller than my thumb and the size of my palm. No one could tell me they were a blob of tissue. Still, I didn’t really need to have my pro-life views strengthened because I was always pro-life.
However, my experience gave me more credibility in debates. I saw abortion as wrong and harmful to the babies and their mothers. I was a feminist before feminism was popular, but I was a true feminist and didn’t think women should build their liberation on the death of their children. Abortion doesn’t help women; it hurts them. In fact, with every abortion there is at least one dead and one wounded and sometimes two dead. It only helps irresponsible men and the abortionists who make a lot of money at the expense of vulnerable women.
How did you first get involved in pro-life issues?
I got involved because I had to; there was no other choice: Babies were being killed. New York had become the abortion capital of the world, and it still is. The first thing I did for the right to life movement was an appearance on The Barry Farber Show (an early talk-radio host). I prepared a nine-page speech which I wound up reading on the air. Then I started volunteering to help by speaking wherever I could.
However, I must admit that I was a reluctant activist at first in regard to organizing. I thought there must be thousands of others who were better equipped to do the job than I could. When in 1972 there was still no functioning Right to Life Committee in Manhattan, I realized it was up to me. There were a lot of volunteers, but no one wanted to lead the charge. I then became fully involved in New York State Right to Life Committee and National Right to Life Committee.
You were involved in the high-profile United Nations conferences on population and women’s rights in Cairo and Beijing, respectively.
The Holy Father (Pope John Paul II) called on everyone of all faiths to get involved in the 1994 Cairo conference because the Holy See saw that pro-abortion non-governmental organizations planned to use the conference to call for the establishment of abortion as a fundamental human right worldwide.
We succeeded in stopping them. The document was not perfect, but it held the line. They tried to push for it again in 1995 at Beijing, but we stopped them and have been able to stop any language that would recognize abortion as a human right. I should mention that we had a major success in 2005 with a historic U.N. declaration calling on member states to ban all forms of human cloning and succeeded in getting language into the 2006 U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities preventing the discriminatory denial of health care, health services or food and fluids.
You’ve also spoken out about maternal health in developing nations.
The women of the developing world are being used as a tool to promote the legalization of abortion with the biggest lie of all — that it is needed to save their lives. The truth is that abortion supporters at the U.N. are more interested in decreasing the number of children that women in the developing world deliver rather than making the delivery of their children safe. The lack of modern medicine and quality health care, not the prohibition of abortion, results in high maternal mortality rates. We have known how to save women’s lives in the developed world for over 70 years. It is a crime against humanity that women in the developing world are still dying needlessly.
For example, South Africa legalized abortion on demand in 1997. The law did not reduce maternal deaths, but resulted in an increase in the number of abortions from 1.7 abortions per 1,000 live births in 1996 to 129.7 abortions per 1,000 live births in 2004 — and in a significant increase in maternal deaths. Ireland, which has the lowest maternal mortality rate in the world, does not have legal abortion.
How do you plan to use the prize from Gerard Health Foundation?
I am humbled and honored to receive this award. There are many people in the pro-life world who are more deserving. I will probably use the money to help my work with our New York organizations and at the U.N. We’re always overwhelmingly behind our opposition in terms of money, and it’s hard to convince people that we need money to keep doing what we do. When you’re up against organizations that have millions of dollars, some funded by our tax dollars, you can’t afford to have a kitchen-table operation.
Register correspondent Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.